City of Legends - Larnaca

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Larnaca has its roots in the ancient city-kingdom of Kition and has grown over millennia to become one of the largest hubs on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. Its history encapsulates a mythological goddess, a celebrated philosopher, and an apostle.

 

Gazing at the collection of clay pots in varying shades of terracotta each with intricate geometric patterns in Larnaca’s archaeological museum, it is hard to believe that many are more than 3,000 years old. They are pristine. Along with steles, metal objects, figurines, and ceramic bowls, these pots were among the finds unearthed during excavations at Kition, the ancient city kingdom where the modern city of Larnaca was founded.


Kition is a brisk 10-minute walk away from the museum in Kalgraion Square. As the birthplace of Larnaca, known locally as Larnaka after the Greek word larnakes, meaning sarcophagoi (the city is famous for the extraordinarily large number of ancient tombs found here), Kition seems a fitting place to get a feel for the heritage of the city: to see where it all began.


I meet up with local archaeologist and historian Georgios Georgiou, a Greek Cypriot. From the museum – a modern place with four galleries, where the magnificent collection of objects follows a chronological order from Neolithic to Roman times and is designed to show the historical development of Larnaca – we head for the archaeological site along the wide street named Komonos.


Kition was founded around 1300 BC, abandoned in around 1000 BC, and rebuilt when the Phoenicians conquered the city in the 9th century BC. It was the birthplace of Zeno, the renowned Greek philosopher who was born here in 334 BC and founded the Stoic school of thought. The people of Kition witnessed wealth and strife, various ruling powers, and destructive earthquakes. It is one of the most important archaeological sites in Cyprus.


The white-washed façades of modern homes and offices standing in gardens of palm trees with views of the sea that characterise Larnaca today provide a backdrop to the ancient site. Georgios and I study the remains of workshops used for producing pots, for smelting copper, dwellings, roads, and burial chambers, along with the ruins of what was once a grand temple where the deity Aphrodite is said to have been worshipped.


Aphrodite has a place set deep in Cypriot folklore. Traditionally, we know her as being the wife of the Greek mythological figure Hephaestus and the goddess of love and beauty, but excavations at Kition afforded her a new honour, that of being a protector of the resource of copper that over millennia brought fabulous wealth 
to the island of Cyprus. Great temples were built in her honour.


According to Greek mythology, the deity originated in the 8th century BC when Homer spoke of Golden Aphrodite and Kypris (Cyprus) in the same breath, and she was the sovereign of the island for over 2,000 years. She is said to have presided over Kition, then a major trade centre for copper. Folklore tells us that the word Kypros, a derivative of Kypris, was given to the metal and that it was absorbed into several European languages; kupfer being the word for copper in German, cobre in Spanish, and cuivre in French.


While the story of Aphrodite is the stuff of legend, it does give visitors like me a new layer of interest when visiting Kition or, indeed, any of the other ancient sites around Cyprus, such as Tamassos near Cyprus’s capital Nicosia (locally Lefkosia), where vast copper deposits contributed to the island’s prosperity. These ancient sites including the magnificent temple built to honour Aphrodite – or Petra tou Romiou, meaning the ‘Rock of the Greek’, near Limassol (locally Lemesos), where she is said to have been born –are all within easy reach of Larnaca.


Larnaca, today, is a vibrant sort of place with a marina, upmarket stores, and gourmet restaurants, as well as handicraft galleries where copperware, silverware, and pottery fashioned by local craftsmen in both traditional and contemporary styles are displayed. 
As I bid farewell to Georgios and move on from Kition to explore the city centre, I reach Avenue Athinon (Leoforos Athinon), which to locals is fondly known as Finikoudes, the Greek word  for ‘palm trees’.


Long, wide, and lined with palm trees and swish restaurants, this seafront promenade has a real cosmopolitan feel. I join locals and visitors to take a leisurely walk. At one end, Larnaca’s marina and its super Pierides Museum, where exhibits include rare historical maps of Cyprus, dominate the street scene, while at the far end there’s the fort. If a building could be described as ‘pretty’, then this compact bastion built to an elegant 17th-century style with crenellated walls lapped by the sea below would fit the term a treat.


Along the way, I turn off along Valsmaki to the wide-open square near the old part of town, which is dominated by the church of St Lazarus (Agios Lazaros). The church is said to have been built to house the tomb of the saint, who was a friend of Jesus and the Bishop of Kition. For me, a visit to see this ornate church built around the turn of the 10th century with influences of Baroque, Byzantine, and Gothic styling, was one of the highlights of my time spent exploring the city.


This area, known as Scala, is awash with workshops. I pass the studio of Stavros Stavrou, a potter and artist who continues the ancient art of making terracotta jugs and pots, some standing several feet high, and all with intricate swirling patterns or adornments like bunches of clay olives or flowers. Stavros uses the rich red soil of the Larnaca region which, once prepared and formed into pliable clay, is placed on a lathe, known as a gyristari, and moulded into shape. He adds decoration before setting the pot aside in preparation for baking in his kiln.


Pottery has provided an income for local families for centuries, and although mass-produced items have found their way into the market today, it is through craftsmen like Stavros that traditional handmade pottery, along with copperware, lace, and colourful woven garments known as karpasitika, remain a part of the heritage of Cyprus.


Larnaca, with its crafts, history, and legends, has been shaped over millennia. Its contribution to the rich cultural heritage of Cyprus is unquestionably priceless.



 

My Larnaca

Lefkaritika lace

Folklore has it that in 1481 the Italian Renaissance painter Leonardo da Vinci, taken as he was by the traditional lefkaritika lace he had seen, travelled to the village of Lefkara in Cyprus to purchase a lace cloth for the altar in the cathedral of Milan.


Maria Polycarpou, a petite lace-maker who works in the family shop in the Larnaca district village of Lefkara, smiles as she tells me that the story is recounted to her hundreds of times during the season. “People ask me if the story is true,” she says, as she nimbly works the delicate lace. “I have to say it is folklore, but it would be wonderful if we could prove it to be true.”


I adore Lefkara, which is a 20-minute or so drive from Larnaca. It is an unspoilt village complete with stone houses and cobbled squares where local women sit outside in the sunshine and produce exquisite lefkaritika tablecloths and coasters.


 


Cyprus in spring

Spring is the best time to explore some of the sites that reveal Cyprus’s multicultural identity. The Al Kepir Mosque is a medieval church turned into a mosque after the Ottoman occupation of 1571. Larnaca's fort, a building whose original shape remains unknown, has served to protect the city’s harbour since the 14th century and was used as a prison during the first years of British rule. Hala Sultan Tekke, a Muslim shrine on the shores of Larnaca Salt Lake, is visited by thousands of pilgrims every year.


 


Earth Spa and Wellness Centre

There’s nothing I like more than enjoying a facial with Claudia at the Earth Spa and Wellness Centre in Larnaca’s Mackenzie district, especially as the ingredients she uses in her preparations are natural and organic. Honey and sugar are used to exfoliate, pumpkin to tone, and blueberries and raspberries to hydrate. earthspa.com.cy


 


The Past and Present tour

I like to join Mary or one of her fellow Cyprus Tourism Organisation guides on one of their walking tours around Larnaca. On the Past and Present tour you get to see colonial buildings and learn of their history, see the Scala workshops, the fort, market, and important monuments, including Agios Lazaros church. visitcyprus.com


 


Marios and Maria at Art Café

One of the best ways for visitors to sample delicious Cypriot cuisine is to try a meze. Marios and Maria at Art Café 1900 in Larnaca’s Scala make their own tzatziki and tahini dips, which they serve with fresh bread and Greek salad. Appetisers are followed by numerous little plates of local dishes, such as kleftiko (lamb cooked with spices for hours in a special oven). artcafe1900.com.cy


 


The MS Zenobia

It sank off Larnaca in 1980 and, with its dives to depths of 18–42m, it is one of the world’s top dive sites. While I’ve enjoyed diving in the shallows with Chris and the team at Dive Zenobia, I’ve never yet been quite brave enough to explore the engine room. This section of the wreck lies in the deepest water and is only for the very experienced. divezenobia.com


 


Contact

Larnaca, Cyprus
Distance: 2024 km
Flight Time: 3 hours, 50 minutes
Frequency: 10 flights a week

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